SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates: “Whenever they do a red carpet for my dad at official openings, they all laugh at me,” Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi smiled, “because I always walk around it.” The daughter of the emirate’s ruler, Qasimi is well-known in contemporary art circles as the founder of the Sharjah Art Foundation.
A curator and artist, in 2003, she became director of the emirate’s low-key art biennial and retooled it to be one of the most influential events the MENA region, significant in the calendars of artists and professionals worldwide.
Nowadays SAF manages a yearlong public program as well as the biennial and has grown from an exhibitor to a significant funder of contemporary art. This month the foundation launched its latest initiative, the Sharjah Film Platform.
Running Jan. 18-26, the SFP unfolded not unlike its March Meetings - the yearly slate of moderated public talks among artists and arts professionals, corresponding to the biennial and SAF’s gap year exhibition program.
SFP’s daytime talks drew upon filmmakers, cinema professionals and artists to discuss a wide variety of topics new film technologies (virtual, augmented and mixed reality), developments in aesthetic and activist approaches to documentary, ethnography in filmmaking, as well as the funding, distribution and legal aspects of cinema. The platform also hosted several filmmaking workshops for aspiring local filmmakers.
Evenings were turned over to more than a dozen discrete exhibition programs, projected both at on-site venues and at the nearby Al-Hamra cinema, the last old cinema in the emirate still standing.
The film programs draw upon a diverse array of Emirati, Arab and international works (most of them short), ranging from conventional narrative and documentary films to contemporary artists’ time-based works. Bolstering these recent works was a short program of Youssef Chahine features - “Cairo Station,” 1958, “The Land,” 1969, and “The Sixth Day,” 1986 - all projected from restored prints.
The quality of the work on show varied widely. One program hinged on diverse, sophisticated studies of rural landscape. Another, dominated by works by younger filmmakers from the Emirates and wider MENA region, was marked by the naivete and sentimentality of several works.
In some ways, SFP’s first edition resembled a conventional film festival. In several others it was quite different, and not simply in the absence of television’s favorite cinema fetish, the red carpet reception preceding a film premiere.
Qasimi sat down with The Daily Star to discuss her vision for the SFP.
The first matter she had to address concerned assumptions that the initiative was meant to fill a vacuum created by last year’s abrupt announcement that Dubai’s festival would become a biennial, which skeptics read as DIFF’s obituary.
“The goal was never to replace or compete with [DIFF],” she said, noting that SAF had been working on this project long before DIFF’s last edition. “The goal was to do something different.”
Qasimi found inspiration in several divergent events, including the Berlinale and Sao Paulo’s Videobrasil. “I wanted to see what was missing,” she said. “How do we help encourage the region’s young filmmakers while helping them see that big, Hollywood-style, red carpet festivals aren’t the only way to go?”
SAF has been supporting artists’ production of film and video since 2003, but the creation of a grant dedicated for short film production preceded an open call to filmmakers and artists to submit work for SFP’s first edition.
“We got over 450 submissions from all over the world - Nepal, India, Afghanistan, Serbia - ranging from three to 90 minutes,” Qasimi recalled. “I was amazed by the range and the quality of some of the films.
“I go through all production grant applications because I love to see how far the open call reached. For me this is part of the process. For this open call we must have had 100 submissions from Egypt alone.”
Though SFP’s selection was gleaned from submissions responding an open call, the programming has been curated insofar as selected titles were assembled into thematic clusters. “At other film festivals they just lump all the shorts together on the basis of their being documentaries, say, or animations,” Qasimi said. “It seemed a little monotonous.
“Like the March Meetings, I really want [SFP] to be a place where people can come together to discuss certain issues and see what’s missing, what’s lacking. What can we learn from our neighbors? What can we learn from the festivals? I hope it can grow to fill that niche.”
It makes sense SAF should have a film platform. Many respected filmmaking artists have made or shown work under the foundation’s aegis.
Common media and practitioners aside, cinema is distinct from electronic art, not least in its level of industrialization. After politics, it’s been joked, film is the greediest art.
The foundation’s outlay includes yearly film production grants and juried prizes for SFP films. Qasimi said the foundation had been fortunate to have generous donors.
“Cash prizes are very important,” she said, “because filmmakers so often need money to finish their work.
“I was planning to approach different companies for donations, but Sharjah Islamic Bank said they wanted to support the whole platform. No logos or anything, they just believe in the project and want to support it.
“I think it’s important to start small and see where the demand is,” she said after a moment. “I think you can burn yourself if you start too big and are unable to continue.”
Festivals have long since supplemented public screenings with professional programs. This region’s festivals have bolstered professional talks with co-production markets and mentoring programs for everything from treatment pitching to scriptwriting and cinematography.
“We definitely want to grow in the right way,” Qasimi said, “to fit these different necessities. ... We’ve been asking the filmmakers here for feedback and it seems everybody’s asking for certain things.
“For me I want the local and regional filmmakers to be able to develop their skills and their ideas creatively, and not feel that they can make just any film and that’ll be OK. For me, quality is really important,” she added.
One film festival practice the SAF founder does not want SFP to emulate is the sometimes cutthroat competition to host world and regional premieres for Arab feature films.
“If it’s a premiere that people are fighting to show, then it already has a demand,” she said. “I like having an open call, which gives filmmakers who don’t have that option an opportunity to apply [with us]. For me that’s more interesting.
“I don’t like to compete. I’m an Aries,” she laughed. “I compete with myself, not with others. I don’t see us competing for world premieres. Some of the team were telling me, ‘Oh some of these films are world premieres!’ I said, ‘OK.’
“People may have made their films three or four years ago and never had a chance to show it in this type of program. If it’s a good film, why not screen it? Why put an expiration date?”
For more information on the Sharjah Film Platform, see sharjahart.org.